KEZIA Dugdale is sitting in her smart new campaign office in Edinburgh when she declares that she is “on a mission” to revive the Scottish Labour Party.
“I want Nicola Sturgeon’s chair, her desk and the possibility of all the powers at her finger tips,” the Scottish Labour leader says. Her breezy optimism appears not to acknowledge that her task is more akin to mission impossible than anything approaching political reality.
According to the opinion polls, Dugdale is staring into an abyss as the 5 May elections for Holyrood approach. The unrelenting rise of Sturgeon’s SNP could see Labour emerging from the Scottish vote without a single constituency seat. Last year’s Westminster elections left Ian Murray as the Scottish party’s single remaining MP as 34 of his colleagues including Jim Murphy, Douglas Alexander and Anas Sarwar, all lost their seats. With Holyrood breaking up to make way for campaigning this week, how can Dugdale avert humiliation for her party in just over six weeks?
“I have a plan,” she insists, as she contemplates the challenge of turning round a party, which has become an anaemic imitation of the force that once reigned supreme across Scotland.
At the heart of it is her strategy to win back the traditional Labour voters who deserted the party for the SNP after the independence referendum. A grain of hope for Labour is that there is some evidence from the doorsteps and focus groups that many of them are keen to move on from the constitution and want to start talking about health and education.
“I am going to talk throughout this election about how you can use the powers of the Scottish Parliament to transform Scotland,” says Dugdale. “We have laid out really bold and radical ways of doing that, using the tax powers to invest in public services.”
She is referring to her proposal for a one pence increase to income tax and her plans to raise more revenue from the richest by imposing a rate of 50 per cent on those earning more than £150,000.
It is an economic policy that contrasts with the approach taken by Sturgeon, who is not expected to follow suit when the SNP unveils details of its tax plans this week. With Scotland facing cuts to public sector budgets, Dugdale is trying to draw a line between her party’s policy and “SNP austerity”.
According to Labour, the idea of raising taxes is not as hard a sell as might be imagined when there is concern about public services on the doorsteps.
“Let’s look at someone on £27,000/£28,000 – a teacher working in schools right now,” says Dugdale. “They would pay £188 more tax a year. Break that down into what that is a day, you are talking 50 pence – you are talking a Starbucks coffee a week. I’m not suggesting that’s an insignificant amount. But I’m saying the price of not doing this is far, far greater. It means fewer classroom assistants, fewer teachers. It means libraries closing down, community centres closed at the weekend, devastating cuts to education – and it has got to stop.”
Dugdale is also working hard to get her party battle-ready. After years of taking support for granted, campaigners in Labour’s old heartlands have been met with anger when knocking on doors. It is an antipathy caused by years of neglect by a deeply complacent party machine plus Labour’s uneasy marriage with the Conservatives in the Better Together campaign.
“I am trying to give a much clearer sense of what the Labour Party stands for and who it stands with,” says Dugdale. “Fifty-three per cent of our constituency candidates will be women, so there are new faces. The party looks and feels like Scotland and I have done a tremendous amount of work to renew the Labour family itself.”
Behind the scenes, this process of family reconciliation has seen her invest a lot of time in trying to improve relations with the party’s traditional backers, the trades unions.
“I have renewed our relationship with the trade union movement. I am working with them closely to bring those experiences of industrial Scotland right into the heart of the Labour movement,” she says.
This Dugdale charm offensive has involved working with union leaders to fight against the UK government’s Trade Union Bill and the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). She has taken care to be seen protesting with rank and file union members against cuts and has also sought meetings with non-affiliated unions like the STUC and Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS).
There are attempts to re-engage the grassroots members by opening up conferences to give members more of a say in party policy. There have also been community projects to get activists involved in local issues.
Plagued by criticisms that Scottish Labour has been a “branch office” of the UK party, she is pushing through her plans to take total control over policy, branch party management, membership policy and candidate selection.
“I lead an autonomous Scottish Labour Party of that there is no doubt,” Dugdale says. It is a line which Scottish Labour hopes will distance itself from the problems UK party leader Jeremy Corbyn faces at Westminster and the difficulties of attracting a middle ground turned off by hard left politics.
Another key aspect of Dugdale’s strategy is her own leadership style. Ahead of an election that has already seen the SNP and the Scottish Conservatives put Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson at the forefront of their campaigns, Dugdale is determined to put policy before personality.
“The Tories put Ruth Davidson on their leaflets to hide the fact they are Tories. Nicola Sturgeon is all over the front of the SNP’s material, so what you’ll see on the front of Labour’s material is our policies, our principles,” says Dugdale, who at 34 is the most inexperienced of the party leaders.
“We are standing on a clear platform of ‘Kids not cuts’ and the idea we can choose to invest in our future and not cut our schools. So the idea is it is not just about who leads, but about how you lead and the arguments that you make and your values and practice.
“I am driven by my ideals and by my principles and I want to put those in practice. I think the older you are, the more cynical you become, and I think the one thing that politics could do without is cynicism.”
Polls have suggested that the Scottish Conservatives could overtake Labour to become Holyrood’s official opposition. A recent Survation poll predicts that Labour will slump to become the third party in Scotland on 21 seats behind the Scottish Conservatives on 22. The poll also suggests the SNP will beat its previous win by one, leaving it with 70 seats.
The Conservative challenge, however, is dismissed by Dugdale.
“Every year there is an election in Scotland, the Tories promise a revival and it never comes. Ruth Davidson’s biggest problem is that she’s a Conservative,” she says.
“Ruth Davidson’s Conservative Party this week set out to cut £4 billion worth of benefits from disabled people. That’s the type of thing the Tories think they need to do to save money. That’s the old-fashioned Tories and Ruth Davidson is a very old-fashioned Tory.”
Nevertheless, such is the SNP’s dominance that the only real contest in this year’s Scottish election is the one for second place – something Dugdale tacitly recognises when asked how many Labour MSPs will be returned on 5 May.
“I won’t make any predictions about seats,” she says. “That’s not the metric of success for me. The job of renewing the Scottish Labour Party is much wider than just a particular number of seats.”
By declining to set herself a target, Dugdale does appear to accept that the result could be very disheartening. She must know Sturgeon’s chair, desk and powers are still very far away.